Around this time last summer, I was deeply torn between staying at The School for another year and moving on to a Next Right Thing that, at that point, was still unclear and undefined. I “just happened” to get an email about a program that our Local Powers planned to use … and as I look back, that email was the main thing that persuaded me to stay.
It was about this program and this book, which we were all to read during September before an October session with the author … or, as it turned out, with the author’s long-time friend and collaborator. What struck me then, and still strikes me now, is the way that Perry Good and her colleagues apply Perceptual Control Theory to the relationships among students, teachers, parents, Powers That Be, and others involved in the life of a school. One key concept is the idea of being clear about my job and your job.
Ms. X and Mr. Y hated that session! “It was useless and boring,” they said … which, of course, is exactly what Ms. X and Mr. Y say about every training session. They had no interest in clarifying students’ jobs or their jobs, so the chronic patterns of misunderstanding and miscommunication continued unchanged, and so did the yelling and labeling and the grumbling and groaning.
“But it’s not my job to make those bad lazy kids come to class on time and do their work!” moaned One Ms. X. “It’s your job to make sure we get good grades,” complained A, B, or C. “It’s not our job to supervise every single hallway all the time,” said some frustrated, realistic Powers That Be.
But who defines my job and your job?
I thought about that when I read Grant Wiggins’ recent blog post about job descriptions for teachers, and when I joined in a lively Google+ discussion about that post. If you’re not clear about your job, or how it’s different from or related to my job, it’s hard to avoid confusion and misunderstanding. But as Wiggins points out, Schools As They Are do a terrible job of defining the job of teacher … or student … or even administrator.
Is that one reason why people are so frustrated?
It’s one thing, of course, if you work in a small, decentralized organization. Right after I graduated from college, I spent some time working for a small, general-practice law firm. There were four or five lawyers and two or three of us supporting them … and the job description was quite simple: everybody pitched in to do everything they could. Richard Elmore would have described the group as mostly distributed individual in its leadership and organization, with a small dose of hierarchical collective since, of course, the four or five lawyers functioned as The Boss when The Boss was needed.
But in a larger organization like a school or school district, hierarchical individual management and structures are the default. And in an organization like that, it’s really important for the lines of authority to be clear. “Teachers,” Elmore says, “own content expertise, while administrators own organizational expertise.” And of course “students are responsible for their learning,” which is measured by grades and standardized test scores.
Or at least that’s how things used to be, “back in the good old days when teachers were revered,” as my friend Ms. X says. I was doing some filing the other day, and I “just happened” to come across a copy of an Official Observation Form from ten or more years ago. It was a simple checklist of observable teacher behaviors, and you could either exceed the standard, meet it, or not meet it for each of the ten or fifteen items. The Relevant Powers could carry a copy on a clipboard, fill it out during an observation session, type up the results, meet with the teacher, and finalize the whole process with relative ease … and everybody knew how the form was used and what Dr. Q would be looking for.
Today’s Official Evaluation Forms are all electronic, which reduces my filing burden … but they’re also vastly more complicated, and they ask administrators to own content expertise and teachers to own organizational expertise in a way that blurs those once-familiar lines.
And the Official Evaluation Form for “school executives” is even longer and more complex.
It’s all in the name of accountability, of course. When Those Test Scores failed to rise despite the initial High Stakes, Promises, and Threats, folks at the top of the hierarchical individual pyramid naturally assumed that a process improvement must be needed. Make the tests longer and harder! Make the evaluation instruments more rigorous! Do something … and expect different results! But those different results stubbornly fail to happen because the very structure of hierarchical individual organizations makes them produce the same results they were originally designed to produce. And a hierarchical individual school or district will probably produce something very much like a normal distribution curve of student test scores, with most teacher and school executive evaluations clustered on the high end of “meeting expectations.” That’s what they’re designed to do, and they do that job well.
Both jobs and job descriptions are more flexible in a joyful learning community, or in any organization that has a distributed form of structure and leadership. But at the same time, jobs and job descriptions are clearer … because a distributed organization can sit down together, literally or metaphorically, and deal with any role confusions or misunderstandings or problems while they’re small. “Who can get to the bank today before it closes?” was a common refrain at the Little Law Firm, and someone was always available. As I work on these new joyful learning communities in both physical and virtual space, as participants build community with, not for each other, it will be important to work together to define my job and your job.
I wonder what other discoveries and insights are waiting!